By Wesley Hill
Because of my church background (Baptist and Calvinist), I often find myself in conversation with Reformed Christians about ecclesiology. “Why are you an Episcopalian?” they ask me. And often — and more pointedly — they want to follow up with a question about church discipline: “Why don’t you Anglicans ask unrepentant sinners to refrain from receiving Communion?”
In Reformed theology, of course, this kind of church discipline is one of the marks of the church. As the Belgic Confession of 1561 puts it,
The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.
If there’s one thing Reformed Christians know about us Anglicans, it’s that we seem not to share this perspective. We’re infamously lax in our implementation of church discipline. Our prayer books, from 1549 through to the 1662 edition still authoritative around the Communion, articulated with only slight variation a strict standard:
[I]f any … be an open and notorious evil liver, or have done any wrong to his Neighbours in word or Deed, so that the congregation is thereby offended: the Curate having knowledge thereof, shall call him and advertise him, that in any wise he presume not to come to the Lords Table, until he have openly declared himselfe to have truly repented, and amended his former naughty life (Preface to “The Order of the Ministration of the Holy Communion,” 1662 Book of Common Prayer)
Moreover, the “Commination against Sinners” meant to be declared on Ash Wednesday expressed a wish for an even more public system of discipline, modeled on that of the Early Church. But not even the most impeccably conscientious, “conservative” Anglicans today seem to live up to either of these standards. Most of our parishes admit any and all baptized persons to Communion, no questions asked, and this troubles many of our critics, particularly when it comes to issues of sexual morality.
Not only does the Episcopal Church have a reputation as a haven for divorced and remarried Roman Catholics but also, now, for partnered lesbian and gay people and other sexually active sexual minorities. We are, in the eyes of many of our ecumenical friends (not to mention many of our members), a morally compromised church.
What can be said in response? I have five theses to offer — consider them a placeholder for a longer essay I’d like to write someday — in the hope of bringing about greater understanding and deeper conversation, especially with my Reformed fellow believers.
1. There is no singular biblical model of church discipline, and our obedience to what the New Testament teaches in this regard must be an imaginative, metaphor-making obedience.
One of the claims that my Baptist friends make with some regularity is that the New Testament clearly mandates (for instance) the exclusion of sexually active lesbian and gay persons from Holy Communion. The rationale is this: Gay sex is sinful, by the long consensus of the Scripture-reading Great Tradition, and to persist in this unrepentant sexual sin is to come to the Lord’s Table unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27-28) and put one’s eternal destiny at risk (1 Cor. 6:9-11). As one Baptist theologian has put it, “[A church member’s] settled commitment to the [LGBTQ-] ‘affirming’ position would in fact compel us to treat the ‘affirming’ member as an unbeliever and set them outside of the church.”
The exegetical basis for that judgment is usually located in 1 Corinthians 5, where St. Paul recommends that an impenitent sexually immoral believer be “hand[ed] … over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (v. 5). The correspondence between Paul’s counsel and our contemporary context is treated as straightforward and uncomplicated: We today should do what Paul did then. We should bar from Communion those who persist in sexual sin.
I don’t want to evade the obvious force of this thinking. Paul’s counsel of excommunication is part of Holy Scripture, and we must seek to live by its light. But consider several differences between Paul’s text and our disputes about sex. First, Paul’s unbelieving contemporaries already agreed with him on the moral status of the sex acts in question (5:1). Second, when Paul addresses same-sex sexuality in the immediate context, he is speaking of its practice outside the Church; he doesn’t say one word about how to handle homosexual sin among those who are inside the church(6:9-11). And third, when Paul goes on to address other kinds of habitual sin in subsequent chapters (11:17-22), he does not recommend excommunication. Not every persistent sin, it would seem, is the occasion for eucharistic exclusion; some simply merit fatherly correction.
My point in saying all this is not (I hope) to wriggle out from under the uncomfortable challenge that 1 Corinthians 5 poses to us. I am simply trying to emphasize that any obedience we render today to the imperatives of that text is going to have to be based on an imaginative application of those imperatives to a very different world than the one represented in the text. Paul’s (varying) pastoral counsels to the Corinthians regarding sexual sin and sinners do not correspond in any direct, one-to-one way to our questions today. Which means, as Richard Hays has argued, that “the use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination, a discernment about how our lives, despite their historical dissimilarity to the lives narrated in the New Testament, might fitly answer to that narration and participate in the truth that it tells.” Things are not as clear-cut on this matter of church discipline as some pastors and biblical exegetes seem to want them to be, and we would be wise to proceed with the kind of caution and flexibility appropriate to that recognition.
2. Church leaders must face the fact of their own complicity in the moral failings of those under their care.
One of the details in 1 Corinthians 5 that has struck me with more and more force in recent years is how Paul not only counsels the Corinthian Christians to hand over the sexually immoral man in their midst to Satan (i.e., excommunicate him, in the hopes of his eventual restoration) but also stresses their collective failure in handling the situation in a godly way. Immediately after naming the presenting problem, Paul rounds on the church as a whole: “[Y]ou are arrogant! … Your boasting is not a good thing” (5:2, 6). In context, Paul is accusing the Corinthians of hypocritical pride in their spiritual status when they can’t even muster the moral will to confront the flagrant immorality of one of their congregants. But his point seems to me to have a wider significance. It highlights the fact that no individual sin is truly individual. We are all implicated in one another — or, to use Paul’s organic metaphor, we are members of the same body (Rom. 12:5) — and one person’s disobedience can affect the community, just as the community’s disobedience can affect an individual.
What are the implications of this fact for thinking about church discipline? Primarily this: Any effort to discipline an erring church member must take into account the ways the church has helped make possible that member’s sin. In the words of Alan Jacobs,
We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership …. Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — hasbeen deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
Or as Jacobs put it to me once in personal correspondence:
A great many conservative churches are effectively arguing that a person who has been catechized very thoroughly by the sexual mores of our culture, and has attended churches that either agree with those mores or at best fail to contest them, is obstinate if he or she doesn’t immediately fall into line with whatever that conservative church affirms. I do not think this is a valid definition of obstinacy, and it places a far heavier burden on the individual to be compliant to one voice amid many than it does on the churches themselves to teach compellingly. There’s just a fundamental lack of compassion for people who have been sold a thoroughly non-Christian account of sexuality all their lives — and, I believe, an equally fundamental failure to take their own apologetic and catechetical responsibilities seriously. At the end of the day I think it’s, more than anything else, a failure of patience.
When we consider the question of whether to exercise eucharistic discipline in the case of same-sex sexual sin, in other words, we need a communal understanding of moral failure. We need to own up to the fact that gay sinners may suffer much more from theological confusion brought about by the Church’s failure to teach and shepherd its members than they do from rebellion. Just as we wouldn’t lay the blame for the moral tragedy of abortion at the feet of a mother who chose to terminate her pregnancy without interrogating the culture and community that left her with the perception she had no other choice, so we shouldn’t lay all or even most of the blame for sexual sin at the feet of all sexual sinners. Penitence should be the public posture and practice of any church that wishes to enjoin penitence on one of its members.
3. The complexity of our post-Sexual Revolution cultural moment should lead us to expect that many “conversions” to a scriptural view of sex and marriage will be gradual and halting.
This thesis is inextricably connected to the previous one. If the Church must own its failure to catechize its members in the matter of sexual ethics, then the Church should also prepare for a long, slow process of redressing that failure and not expect an overnight change of heart, mind, and behavior from its members. The Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths once wrote on his blog:
In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.
Given that reality, any contemporary American Christian’s acceptance of — let alone deep agreement with — Christian teaching on marriage is likely to take a very long time.
I recall talking with a priest in the Church of England once who told me that the church must now address something Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 never had to confront: how to disciple people so that they are able to recognize as sinfula set of behaviors they’re used to thinking of as holy. Paul was able to assume a basic agreement — even among unconverted pagans — about the immoral status of a man’s sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:2). We, on the other hand, are now confronted with a society and, increasingly, with churches in which gay relationships and gay sex, far from being considered immoral, are treated instead as life- and body-affirming, indeed as ways of enjoying the gift of God’s love. The priest added:
Just as at one time the church in the era of the Crusades, say, was blind to its uncritical captivity to militarism, so now the church in the West is largely blind to its captivity to the values of the Sexual Revolution. Christians of later eras will look back on our generation as a time when we drifted along with the cultural flow. But in the meantime, we must take seriously the fact that those who give in to sexual sin today do not understand themselves to be sinning. On the contrary, they view their choices as faithful, even godly ones. So the matter is not as simple as being able to excommunicate “sinners” who are aware of themselves as sinners.
Drawing analogies in this kind of discussion is always a perilous business, but I think here of how some of my Reformed Baptist friends have addressed the fact that many of their theological and spiritual heroes engaged in the persistent, unrepentant sin of racism and the support of the injustice of slavery. Typically, they address this tragic reality with charity, erring on the side of grace rather than condemnation. Writing about two of his heroes, James P. Boyce and Jonathan Edwards, Baptist pastor Trevin Wax has said:
Here’s the glorious truth: the reality they saw so clearly provides the answer to the sin they didn’t.
In other words, they discerned the reality of justification by faith alone better than they discerned the sinfulness in their own hearts and lives. And it’s that reality of justification by faith alone that levels us all and drives us to our knees — thankful for the clear example of horrendously flawed theologians articulating the only doctrine that gives hope to all of us who are horrendously flawed.
Slavery is a great evil, but even slavery cannot stand in the way of the grace and glory of the gospel. And just as we learn from the blind spots of the generations who have gone before us, we trust that the blood of Christ will cover our own blind spots.
This seems to me to be the right approach. However, there is no good reason, other than an unbalanced fixation on gay sexual sin and the ignoring of other kinds of sin, not to include the values and mores of the Sexual Revolution in what Wax calls “our own blind spots” and therefore to seek to shepherd sexual sinners with appropriate gentleness.
4. Church discipline in Anglicanism should be treated as a largely forgotten practice in need of rediscovery, rather than a possession being intentionally neglected.
In a bracing essay on the office of the Keys (the church’s mandate of “binding and loosing”), Lutheran theologian David Yeago’s judgment about the practice of church discipline in mainline Protestantism today is a bleak one:
There is no honest way of avoiding the conclusion: by Luther’s standards — and here he speaks for a wide ecumenical tradition — our mainline churches today are churches in trouble. The disappearance of corporate discipline is more than the abandonment of ancient customs now grown uncouth; it marks the point at which a whole array of fears and confusions and wayward cultural codes conspire to alienate us from the faith and mission of the apostolic church. This alienation is deep enough that it must seriously call into question the capacity of mainline churches, as presently constituted, to represent the reign of the crucified and risen Christ before the world. Nor is there any prospect of immediate reform. God can always surprise us, but humanly speaking, it seems profoundly improbable that mainline churches will recover in our lifetimes the sort of vigorous public exercise of the Keys that Luther envisioned.
I would say the same thing about the Episcopal Church, to which I belong and am committed: We share in the failure Yeago describes.
The only thing I would add to this dark conclusion is that I am not sure anything more positive than this can be said for “conservative” or evangelical churches. Is an ecclesial world in which someone who’s barred from Communion at a Reformed Baptist church and can then move on to another (often equally “evangelical”) church where they aren’t so barred really living into the scriptural vision of church discipline? Only a church that has made its peace with the status quo of division could be satisfied that obedience to Scripture had truly been realized in such a scenario. None of us, it seems, is fully practicing what the New Testament envisions.
This is why I don’t think it would solve any of the problems Yeago outlines for an individual Christian to decide to leave the Episcopal Church for a church that is more obviously and seriously committed to the practice of church discipline, like a Reformed Baptist congregation. Such moves are often motivated by a desire to be faithful to Scripture and the dictates of conscience, and I can only applaud that motivation. But let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that I abandoned the Episcopal Church for a parish of the Anglican Church in North America or a Southern Baptist church, in the hopes that at my new parish sexual sinners would be more directly confronted with the imperatives of the gospel. Unless I am willing to say that the baptisms of the sexual sinners who remain in the Episcopal Church that I left are invalid and the Eucharist they receive each week profits them nothing, then I haven’t truly contributed to the recovery and reform of the Church’s discipline; I have simply removed myself from a context where I am more overtly confronted with the need for that reform. My old fellow communicants may now be out of my weekly sight, but I remain bound to them by our shared baptism, and I can’t erase that bond by switching to a church with stricter discipline. The mainline churches’ failure is the whole church’s failure — unless we want to say the mainline churches have forfeited their status as Christian churches, which, in the case of the Episcopal Church, at least, I’m not at all prepared to say.
A better course, it seems to me, is recommended by Yeago. We who remain in mainline churches like the Episcopal Church are called, he writes,
neither to barren impatience nor to dull conformity but to faithfulness in what the prophet calls “the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10), a day when seemingly nothing great or significant can be done, in comparison with our danger, a day when only little steps can be taken, easy to despise, yet which the Lord will not let be in vain.
In light of this, my plan is to stay put in the Episcopal Church for as long as I can and to commit to practicing these “small things,” these “little steps” that Yeago envisions — praying for my sanctification and that of my fellow Episcopalians, struggling for my sexual holiness and commending that same struggle to others, expounding Scripture and the church’s tradition in conversation with those who dissent from it, showing charity to those who wish we conservatives would simply move on ,and hoping that they will show the same charity to me as well when I give the impression that I wish they might move on. Even if the day of greater faithfulness in these matters only comes long after my lifetime, I do trust, as the text says to which Yeago alludes, that “in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (1 Cor.15:58).
5. In our slow recovery of the practice of church discipline, we must remember the aim of discipline: the forgiveness of sins.
In her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, the Episcopal priest Lauren Winner recounts the following story:
[E]ventually I went to another priest, in America this time, to formally say confession. I was there to confess a long litany of sins, not just sexual sin — lies I’d told, ways I’d screwed up friendships, a whole host of mistakes and missteps. Somewhere in the middle of that confession I came to the sexual sin, and my confessor said, gently but firmly (which are the two adverbs I now believe should apply to any Christian rebuke), “Well, Lauren, that’s sin.”
And in that sacramental moment, kneeling with another Christian whose sole task was to convey Christ’s grace and absolution to me, something sunk in. I still couldn’t have given a solid disquisition on sexual ethics in the Pauline epistles, but I knew that this priest had just told me something true.
This is what godly church discipline looks like in action, I believe. And reading this, I realize again that this is what I want. I want to be under the pastoral oversight of a priest like this. I want the Church to tell me the truth about my sin and to speak to me straightforwardly about the spiritual harm that results when I clutch at sins I’m unwilling to give up. But I also want this message to be delivered to me, as Winner describes in the case of her priest, “gently.”
“In wrath remember mercy,” the prophet prays to God (Hab. 3:2). When practiced rightly, church discipline, which is meant to convey to hardhearted sinners God’s fatherly displeasure in our sin, is restorative. God’s wrath is for the sake of mercy. The office of the Keys is meant to communicate the gospel of God’s liberation, in which the shutting up of all in disobedience is meant to open out onto a divine condescension and forgiveness equally extensive (Rom. 11:32). Done in accordance with Scripture, the discipline of a wayward church member is always “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5).
When, near the end of his great Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth comes to comment on the New Testament passages on church discipline (Matt. 28:18-20; 16:18-19; John 20:23, etc.), he says this:
If everything is in order and [the church’s disciplinary] work is well done, there must be a great opening, permitting and releasing, i.e., the promise and reception of the forgiveness of sins. If [the church’s] work is not done or done badly, then contrary to its task the community closes the kingdom of heaven and excludes men from it instead of pointing to the door which is open to all. It holds where it should release. The remission which is the content of its witness is kept from men. Was it and is it not a strangely perverted mode of interpretation to think that the community may actually be commissioned to choose this negative alternative, using some standard (but which?) either to open on the one side or to close on the other, either to proclaim forgiveness or to withhold it, and thinking that this dual action is even given heavenly sanction? Unless it neglects or corrupts its ministry, can it possibly use the keys of the kingdom of heaven committed to it to close the kingdom to men?
God help us all not to use the keys that way.